Walking

Today, I walked from my home in East Vancouver, to Mass at a beautiful Ukrainian Catholic Church off of Cambie Street. I zig zagged northwest until I arrived at a large dome with three crucifixes, each harboring either a seagull or a crow. It was a beautiful, crisp day with much of the New Years snow still holding onto sidewalks and front gardens. The city is a beautiful mix of new and old, wild and manicured, beautiful and ugly. Here are a few pictures from my walk.

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What it Means to be a Spiritual Ecologist

This group is dedicated to Spiritual Ecology. But it is also about the Spiritual Ecology of a particular place: The Salish Sea. What is Spiritual Ecology? And what relationship do spirituality and ecology have with place?

Vancouver, BC is only the latest layer in a deep cultural geology that emerged after the glaciers melted from what is now being called the Salish Sea—the watersheds that drain into the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait. Coast Salish peoples number over 60,000 souls today making up over 50 tribes, bands and kin groups. By many of their own accounts, they have dwelt in this place from the beginning of time. I cannot speak for them, but I know that for many, place is not an inert geometric space that has over the years produced fond feelings of attachment; it is not an object outside themselves that they have learned to appreciate through meaning-making. Place is the ground of their being; it is an oikos—a dwelling-place, a habitation. The sea, mountains, forests, salmon, deer, plants, air and sky are woven into their be-ing. The stories, myths, rituals, ceremonies and dangers spoken of by First Peoples are not metaphors projected onto otherwise meaningless physical terrain; they are the grammar of dwelling; they do not make up a worldview, they make up the world (See Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think).

For my people, the new-comers, the settlers, the children of colonials seeking a better life under the watchful eye of God and Progress; the Salish Sea too nourished our bodies, but also our love of money. Only later did it nourish our souls. Having laid our hands to ax and plow, we were proud of our work and our sweat, we dedicated it to God, built places of worship in His name. We brought ‘savage’ peoples a saving ‘religion’. We too were immersed in not only a worldview, but a world; one that we believed would bring peace to earth and eternal life to souls. Only within the last few years have we begun to wake up to the savagery of our world; to the violence of what we thought was love, to the folly of what we thought was progress. We the learned, have much to learn, much to undo, and much to apologize for.

One way we sought to right our wrongs was by offering up large swaths of the land to healing, contemplation, beauty and solitude. Today, the Salish Sea has become our Spiritual Ecology too. In the 1800s we fell in love with Nature and sought to protect it from our advancing cult of Progress. But our Spiritual Ecology had a flaw, a difference to that of the First Peoples: it was dualistic. By dualistic I mean that the West dwells in a schizophrenic world of distinct domains: culture and nature, subject and object, traditional and modern, spirit and matter. This orientation to the world separates our dwelling places from our soul places: work and worship, city and country. Nature became a place that we went to after a long day; a refuge from civilization, a recreation. Non-humans became objects for our perception and manipulation (whether that be for food, money or beauty). Being ejected from the Garden, we tried to bring the Garden back to us through protected areas, National Parks and National Forests. Ecology meant Nature, and Spirit meant the non-material aspect of our all too materialistic world.

This ontology is killing the world. It is killing our Religion. It is killing our Souls. But things are changing.

For many of the rising generation, spirit is not so much a shimmery version of ourselves that lives inside us like the driver of a car. Spirit is anima, breath. Spirit is Life. Being spiritual is nothing more or less than being fully alive; being present to life and it’s flourishing. The religions most of us grew up with felt like rules and beliefs, and in-group out-group posturing. But within all religions there is always a spirituality of life.  Religion, religare—to bind together—can be about our connection to God and each other, but also about our connection to Life. Religion properly practiced is a response to life. It is not an answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’, for as Philosopher John Caputo would say, life is the meaning of life.

Ecology is not Nature as a separate domain of reality. Ecology is the scientific study of organisms in their environment; but it is so much more than this, for there is no such thing as an environment. There is only a great web be-ing, an intricate web of life, life-ing. All life, even the life that is not yet life in the air, rocks food and water; even the life no longer living. Being present to life is being present to both the beauty and the pain of life. Yes there is tremendous suffering in the web of life and death, but even in the predator, disease and parasite there is life and the continuation of life, the evolution of life, the creativity of life.

Spiritual Ecology then is a celebration of life in all aspects, both beauty and pain. A Spiritual Ecologist mindfully witnesses to this beauty and pain and acts accordingly.

Spiritual Ecology is one part perception, one part practice and one part ethic.

Perception: For a long time in the West, Spiritual Ecology was about appreciating the beauty of Nature, or protecting Nature from Culture. In light of Climate Change, we are realizing there is no such thing as Nature. This is not to say that the world does not exist, or even that it is a social construction; but that if we are looking for hard facts about the world, a place, a thing called Nature outside and apart from Culture it is just not there. Nature is a disembodied spirit, a ghost that has haunted us for 200 years. But our perception is changing, through both the wisdom of religion and the propositions of science we are waking up to a different world. Theologian John Caputo gives us a glance of that world:

“The cosmos opened up by Copernicus collapse the distinction between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’…The earth is itself a heavenly body, one more heavenly body made up of stardust, as are our own bodies. We are already heavenly bodies, which means that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ must report back at once to headquarters for reassignment, where they turn out to be ways of describing our terrestrial lives here ‘below’. Every body—everybody, everything—is a heavenly body. Heaven is overtaken by the heavens. Dust to dust, indeed, but it is all stellar dust. Our bodily flesh is woven of the flesh of the earth, even as the earth itself is the debris of stars, the outcome of innumerable cyclings and recyclings of stellar stuff, all so many rolls of the cosmic dice. We are not ‘subjects’ over and against ‘objects’, but bits and pieces of the universe itself, ways the world is wound up into little intensities producing special effects of a particular sort in our bodies in our little corner of the universe” (Caputo, 2011, The Insistence of God, 175).

Caputo expresses a deep call calling from beyond our Western world. Science and Religion, who have been temporarily separated due to irreconcilable differences, are starting to warm up to one another again. We need them both, but not as complementary institutions concerned with facts on one hand and values on the other; not as two coins that add up to 1.00, but two sides of the same coin. There is no objective knowledge outside of human experience, and human experience is not the unreliable black box subjectivity. Our bodies, minds, souls and science emerged from this planet. As Caputo again states, “our power of vision, as well as the particular structure of the color spectrum available to sight, is a direct and precise effect of the astronomical composition of our sun, which has set the parameters of vision which we and other animals forms have evolved. To ask whether what we see, as if it were inside our head, ‘corresponds’ to what is out there, ‘outside our head’, is to ask a question not only without an answer but without meaning” (Caputo 2006, The Insistence of God, 176).

Spiritual Ecology then does not involve going to Nature to find spiritual meaning or connection. This keeps nature separate from culture, spirit separate from nature. Spiritual Ecology is cherishing life, and witnessing to the beauty and pain of the world wherever we are. Yes it is about interconnection, but also the connections that hurt, that threaten us with harm; and the connections that threaten others. The virtue of Christian hospitality is not only welcoming the known, the familiar; but the wholly (Holy) other. Being open to life is to see it, really see it, in all its complexity and to let our lifeways emerge accordingly. This can happen in the ocean, the forest, the savannah, a farm, a city, or a slum. Spiritual Ecology is our communities, our places of worship, our prisons, our hospitals, our schools, the blackberry patches on the side of the roads. It is wherever we are present to the unfolding of life.

This presence is not the appreciation of an aesthetic object. Anthropologist David Abrams helps us shift our gaze in this respect: “To touch the course skin of a tree is thus, at the same time to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” (Abrams 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, 68). This is not a relationship between knowing subject and known object, it is the relationship between two waves in an ocean.

Practice: Once we realize with Theologian Thomas Berry that “The natural world is the maternal source of our being…the larger sacred community to which we belong.” (Berry 2006, Dream of the Earth, 81), our spiritual practices will reflect that fact. I was raised in the Mormon Church. I greatly admire the Mormon faith and its people; however, my own religious path has called me to a more Contemplative Christianity. For me, the Mass, the Eucharist, prayer, churches and the saints all enhance and give particular form to my celebration of life. Yes there is much to criticize in the Christianity, but through liturgy that centers on the person of Jesus, my appreciation for life, my love for others has only increased. To say that Christ is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, is to ritualize the presence of Christ in the cosmos from the moment it flared forth at the Big Bang. To shout Christ is Risen, Alleluia! at Easter is to ritualize the emergence of tiny beautiful buds from the limbs of every tree. To bring the body of Christ into my body prepares me to see God in everything I eat, in everyone I come into contact with. This celebration will be different for each person, each tradition.

Ethic: Once we realize in body and mind that we are the world we seek to experience, our actions should not take the form of a rigid dogma, a Puritanical obsession with recycling or turning off the lights. I do not mean that these are wrong, I only mean that they are not ethics, they are dogmas. Green purchasing is just another marketing scheme to Western individuals that want to consume an identity. We do it all the time. I do it all the time. An ethic is a practice that carries moral weight, it is more complicated than rule. Anthropologist Richard Nelson, writing of his connection to an island off the coast of British Columbia, captures the spirit of how an ethic might emerge for a Spiritual Ecologist:

“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself…I am the island and the island is me” (My emphasis, Nelson 1989, The Island Within, 249, 250).

All of our decisions have consequences that eventually return to us. How and whether we are able to turn this culture around is an ongoing debate, but it will require more than carbon markets, stricter regulations, expanded protected areas, or planting more trees. It will require a deep shift in our perception and practice of the world from which emerges an ethic that refuses to see one more species go extinct, one more child starve, one more woman abused, one more First Nations’ sacred site destroyed, one more mine tailings pond burst, or, most recently, one more fuel leak in the ocean. How we get there is part of a long difficult conversation. Spiritual Ecology is only one aspect of that conversation, but it needs to be part of it.

Convergence Reflections

A year ago, I decided I wanted to put on a conference. I had just started my PhD program at UBC and finished a course on the history of environmental thought. It became clear that there was so much to learn about our religious and spiritual relationship to the world. Being new in the Pacific Northwest I wanted to bring people together, to see what was out there, what was being done, and how we might form a stronger community of ‘spiritual ecologists’ in the region. I wanted to discuss religion, spirituality, ecology and cosmology in the same space, and I wanted to gather strength for the fight for our future that our generation is in the midst of. What started as an idea became a reality from September 22-24 and the 29th. With fifteen artists and at least twenty four presenters, speakers or narrators this truly was a Convergence of talent, ideas, passion and beauty. I chose the title Spiritual Ecologies and New Cosmologies, because I wanted to span the diverse terrain of scholarship, activism and advocacy for a new way of seeing ourselves in relationship to the earth and the Universe herself. I chose the plural because I knew there would not be just one vision of a sacred earth or a sacred cosmos, but many. I chose Convergence, because I wanted it to be about more than just presenting papers. As the core organizer I made plenty of mistakes: perhaps too many speakers, too few breaks, too much time in our heads. But overall we had an amazing spectrum of lectures, presentations, storytelling, performance, walking meditation, art and most importantly discussion and sharing. While the Convergence is over, the art will be exhibited at the Liu Institute until November 6, so if you missed the Convergence stop by!

Day 1: Beginnings

Storytellers

Storytellers

The picture of Monday’s speakers brings me great joy. For all the strife and religious violence in the world it was amazing to have people speaking from 10 different traditions, and sharing those perspectives with an audience of 80 other perspectives. We had some technical difficulties and the speakers went a little long, but to be in the First Nations Long House among the amazing totems and pillars was a wonderful place to tell stories of origin and beginnings. We were welcomed to the Musqueam territory by Elder Larry Grant, who told us about the origin of the name Musqueam, and the problematic nature of colonial English words like ‘creation’ and ‘Creator’ and the Musqueam concept of all things possessing a life force. As we learned, not all of our spiritual traditions tell stories of beginnings –our Buddhist and Hindu storytellers spoke of unimaginably long cosmic cycles within which human beings strive for liberation from suffering. While the Judeo-Christian creation stories (Gen. 1 and 2) offer poetic details about the emergence of the universe and a cast of characters, our Sikh storyteller declared that only God knows how the universe was brought into being. For us it will always be a mystery. In Islam, everything in creation points back to Allah, from beginning to end, and our Mormon storyteller spoke of our eternal co-existence with God and the universe. If we had had more time, I would have asked 10 more scientists to speak from their traditions. But our cosmology story teller, Ben Pfeiffer a Langara College science professor, did an amazing job, by telling of the Big Bang and the origin of the earth in a story that included a mythical spider who challenged the dominant telling of the scientific story of the universe by mostly white men. After the welcome dinner, we heard from those in the audience who brought up many interesting points and spoke from experience. They all had stories to tell, and I wish we would have had time to hear them all.

Day 2: Cosmologies

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Cosmic Meditation Walk

On our second day, via skype, we heard from the producers of ‘Journey of the Universe’, a film about reconnecting the human purpose to cosmic evolution. During the response to the film by Bruce Sanguine, a local self-professed evolutionary Christian, a young woman entered the room and began speaking loudly, asking if she could speak, asking what we thought we were doing. I tried to ignore her and move on with the evening, but she persisted despite efforts by some of the participants to calm her down and invite her outside. At one point she insulted our speaker by saying what he was saying made no sense. As Bruce continued, I lost my temper and stormed up to her demanding that she leave the premises. She refused and my anger only escalated her outbursts. The room was tense and we tried to move forward, while someone called UBC security. While I stormed around, one of the participants quietly gained her trust, and took her outside, calming the woman down, and teaching her how to reconnect to herself through the ground and the trees that surround the Liu Institute. The woman admitted that perhaps she should not have made such a scene and apologized. The evening proceeded with some very insightful reflections, but as I reflected, my boldness melted into shame. Yes, I had worked so hard to build something, and she had tried to ruin it…How dare she insult my speaker! But I realized what a perfect metaphor it all was. All of our preconceived notions of comfort, order, harmony, normality, and mental health can be shattered in an instant. How could I change my relationship to the earth if I could not even love one person suffering from a momentary lapse in mental health? If that woman, who refused to tell us her name, is reading this, I want to say I am sorry. Please forgive my lack of compassion for you. I will do better.

After our discussion we turned to the Sisters at Earth Literacies Program for a walking meditation that spanned the entire history of the universe as told by contemporary Cosmology, each milestone marked with a candle. I was impressed by the amount of silence between the beginning of the universe and the emergence of galaxies, and the tiny spaces between the creation of earth and the evolution of consciousness. After the Sisters outlined the journey, we all walked the spiral from the center to the outer edge in silence. It was profound to see the milestones that led to Jason M. Brown walking in a small room of peers in British Columbia under my feet; to grasp that I was but star stuff reflecting back on the process of becoming Mind stuff.

Day 3: Ecologies

Speakers and Participant from the afternoon session

Speakers and Participant from the afternoon session

On the third day we had an amazing and full lineup of speakers. We had some great discussion as well. I felt so privileged to be around people who care so deeply about the earth and making our civilization more sustainable. We also had the perspectives of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Pagans, Unitarians, Survivalists, Atheists and more! I was struck by Meg Robert’s and Mike Bell’s points about the importance of spiritual practice for keeping our activism vital. I was struck by the need to ground our consciousness raising in the landscape, in a context, or as Matthew Humphrey argued, in a bioregion, or life-place. As Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr has put it in his writing “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” This is exactly what Suresh Fernando is attempting to do with his spiritual community at Ruby Lake on the Sunshine Coast. Yes we can seek personal spirituality, but it must be grounded in place, in tradition, in community.

With respect to system change we had a few different minds. For example, Winnie Chu is starting an air pollution monitoring company guided by Buddhist principles. Others were adamant that what is needed is to create semi-autonomous zones that can push back the system which is hopelessly corrupt, to birth a new way of living on earth. These autonomous zones would not just be political, but could demand freedom from noise pollution, light pollution, techno-addiction, and the alienation from life itself. In the end it seems that authentic Transition will require an all hands on deck strategy: system change from within and pressure from without.

Spiritual practice is what will keep us grounded and keep us from burning out. We must be connected to the wild and to each other. And yet, it is essential that in seeking the wild, we do not romanticize it as some far off wilderness park. As Nikki Van Schyndel reminded us, our hearts are wild, and there are wild things all around us. And yes, sometimes it is scary, but fear can be the birth pang of joy. Yes, we must push back industrial civilization to some measure of sustainable limits, and yes we must protect and restore intact ecosystems; but we must also remember to dwell in the wilderness of the present moment, with what and who are all around us while we work toward these goals.

We were blessed to have several First Nation’s folks among us for our discussions, and they reminded us of the dangers of appropriating Indigenous lifeways. We must stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples and against continued racism; but we must also decolonize our own traditions and retrieve and reclaim the good and beautiful in them. As a Christian practicing Zen Buddhism, this was a particularly potent lesson for me. The Celtic and Franciscan traditions of Christianity have been neglected for the colonial, guilt ridden, and capitalist Christianity of the West.

Nikki teaching us how to make fire with a bow drill.

Nikki teaching us how to make fire with a bow drill.

Day 4: Convergence

On Monday September 29, we decided to continue the community that was forged during these few days. The Spiritual Ecologies and New Cosmologies Community, a tentative title, has been born. Starting with online networking and resource sharing we want to continue to build bridges and understanding between faiths, to offer resources to communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest that want to do more to connect their faith with the earth. The community wants to plan more events, a 2015 Convergence perhaps, but definitely smaller workshops on Sacred Activism. Ari Lazer, one of artists is also hosting a workshop on Sacred Geometry, so check that out. If you did not get the email I sent out and would like to stay connected please let me know.

 

Thank you to all who attended this convergence! To my co-coordinator Elaine Hsiao, to Andrea Reynolds at the Liu Inistitue, to Blake Smith and Miriam Matejova from the Liu Lobby Gallery and to Maya Graves-Bacchus for her help and to many others for your love and support.

Please share your responses and reflections with me at

Jason [dot] minton [dot] brown [at] gmail [dot] com